Sunday, October 19, 2014

Haruki Murakami's evasive fiction

Haruki Murakami, perhaps the contemporary Japanese novelist best-known to Western readers, has a short story, "Scheherazade," in the October 13, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. It begins (in Ted Goossen's translation), "Each time they had sex, she told Habara a strange and gripping story afterward."

Habara, 31, seems to be under house arrest or internal exile in a provincial Japanese city. The woman with whom he has sex is 35, "a full-time housewife with two children in elementary school (though she was also a registered nurse and was apparently called in for the occasional job)." It's not clear whether bringing Habara groceries twice a week and servicing him sexually is part of the job. Nor do we learn her name. Habara calls her Scheherazade because she tells him stories that always break off before the end, as does Murakami's own story here (another reason for my frustration).

We don't know why Habara is stuck in the house. He watches DVDs and reads all day—no newspapers, no internet, no television, and presumably no radio. We know nothing about his earlier life, his family, even his feelings for the woman. "Scheherazade" takes place entirely within the house, giving a claustrophobic feeling.

On The New Yorker's website, Deborah Treisman says, "If Scheherazade is a lamprey eel, dependent on other creatures for her survival, Habara refers to himself as a desert island, isolated and self-sufficient. Do you see him that way? Could he survive with no human contact?"

Murakami responds, "Habara is a man who has experienced an irrevocable turning point in his life. Was the turning point moral, or legal, or was it a metaphorical, symbolic, psychological kind of thing? Did he turn the corner voluntarily, or did someone force him? Is he satisfied with the results or not? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The instant he turned that corner, though, he became a 'desert island.' Things can’t go back to the way they were, no matter what he does. I think that is the most important aspect of this story."

The reaction of this reader however is a feeling of being cheated. It seems to me that an irrevocable turning point in a life is a story and to evade it is to evade the artist's responsibility to say something meaningful about the world. Treisman asks, "These two characters’ lives intersect seemingly at random—or at the whim of some unnamed person. What made you think of throwing them together in this situation?"

Murakimi responds, "I occasionally think that, in our heart of hearts, we all may be seeking situations like this one—where our free will doesn’t apply and (almost) everything is determined by someone else, where each day must be lived according to the conditions that someone else has laid down. There are people who may already be living that sort of life, to a greater or lesser extent, without even knowing it." In fact, as a volunteer teacher in prisons, I've met hundreds of people who must live each day according to conditions that someone else has laid down. For most of them, it's not a lot of fun or very interesting.

I did not believe for a moment that Habara or his "Scheherazade" embodied anything "real." I thought the situation was interesting (I thought it was a writer's wet dream: be alone to read, watch DVDs, write, and have a complaint woman provide the groceries and regular sex without any responsibility), and I thought the story Scheherazade tells about a youthful infatuation interesting, but (and this may well be my lack of imagination and bias) I found the story irritating and ultimately meaningless.

Adventures in Japanese - I

A Kyoto yakitori chef prepares a meal.
I have been engaged in (interested in? consumed by?) the Japanese language for a long time. Although I doubt I will ever return to Japan, I continue to meet weekly with a Japanese conversation partner and continue to learn slowly, slowly the characters with a goal of eventually being able to read a magazine or newspaper. I will never be fluent. I cannot, for example, understand a news broadcast. But my spoken Japanese is good enough to function as a traveler in Japan.

Because I have been learning and using Japanese for a long time, and because I find the language so interesting, I plan to write about Japanese and some of my experiences with it in a series of periodic blog entries, this being the first. I hope that if you have observations or questions, you will take a moment to comment.

Like many Western visitors to Japan, I was disoriented when I got off a troop ship in Yokohama harbor years ago and discovered that, while Japanese shops, posters, and billboards were a riot of writing, I was entirely illiterate. I might also have been deaf and dumb because everything I heard was only noise. On the one hand, it seemed impossible to learn enough to, as a friend said, "exchange ideas." On the other, Japan is filled with children who have learned the language, so it cannot be impossible.

Indeed, I learned almost immediately how to say "hello," "thank you," and "how much?" As a GI, I didn't need much more; the Japanese I came in contact with spoke (some) English. While the Japanese education system requires several years of English study (and did so right through WWII)—and I have a story about English instruction in a moment—in my experience, few Japanese are comfortable in English and appreciate the foreigner who has bothered to learn some of their language. The Japanese are not, generally, language snobs unless or until you gain native fluency, which will never be my dilemma.

The story: One time in the 1950s was on a train somewhere in the countryside. At a stop, a group of schoolboys and their teacher came into the car. I was an American in civilian clothes, fairly unusual at that time and place. The boys crowded around me and dragged their teacher over to sit across from me. He was clearly embarrassed by what the boys insisted. Because I spoke virtually no Japanese, I could not help him much. Finally, by consulting the pocket dictionary I always carried and the dictionary he had in his brief case, were able to establish that (a) he was the boys' English teacher, and (b) I was the first person he had ever met for whom English was his native language.

While I know that the level of English-language instruction in Japan has improved dramatically in the last 50 years, I also know that for many Japanese English is a trial and a burden. An American who is able to speak some Japanese, even poorly, therefore has an enormous advantage in gaining access to the "real" Japan, whatever that is.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What one guy learned exiling himself in, of all places, Kalamazoo

Ordinarily, I do not care for stories about alcoholics (they tend to follow the same pattern) or about writers (as I writer myself, I don't find their challenges very interesting), which means I tend to have even less sympathy for stories about alcoholic writers. Exile on Kalamazoo Street by Michael Loyd Gray is an exception.

It is the story of Bryce Carter, a 51-year-old novelist with a drinking problem. He's been successful enough to have published three novels and sell one for a screenplay that brought in enough money he could buy a small house in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He's taught creative writing in college. When he found himself going down for the third time in the Whiskey River, he exiled himself in the house, resolving not to step one foot outside the door until . . . well, maybe never. His sister who lives in town buys his groceries and delivers them and, at his request, captures a black cat that becomes Black Kitty, Bryce's constant companion.

Because he is always home, Bryce is a sitting duck (fish in a barrel?) for visitors. These include a former drinking buddy who does his best to push Bryce off the wagon, a Presbyterian minister who would like to save Bryce's eternal soul, a 23-year-old former student who has an adorable shaved vulva, a former academic colleague, and, eventually, two Hollywood flunkies dispatched to nudge Bryce into writing a screenplay based on his third novel—which is by his account "a self-indulgent mess by a self-indulgent drunk . . . a 500-page leviathan that lurches finally into incoherence about a man searching for his soul." (Exile on Kalamazoo Street is 151 pages and while somewhat self-referential and somewhat self-indulgent, it is neither incoherent nor a mess.)

The novel begins with a chapter of Bryce sliding enthusiastically into Whiskey River in a local bar, but Gray writes without apology or explanation. Good! The rest of the novel covers the months Bryce spends in exile with Black Kitty and his interactions with his visitors. His sister has sicced the minister on him: "But I couldn't be angry with Janis, my younger and only sister, a dutiful mother, freshly divorced, who believed unflinchingly in the magic the church might wield on wounded people as surely as I doubted it. Janis was an onward marching Christian soldier. But she just wanted the best for me."

Bryce is a writer, but he does not write in his exile. For one thing, he is still recovering from his third novel. Speaking about it to the minister, he says, "Many critics said there's no story at all, Reverend. I recall my agent telling me that if it sold, it would because there wasn't another book quite like it. Turns out that's a good reason why no other books are quite like it." Much later, after he's been hired to write the screenplay, "I thought of the irony of being tasked to write a film about a man with the ability to travel the world [he's won the lottery] searching for some eternal truth. I thought of truth as just a word and a good idea, but something that did not really exist. There were actions and reactions, statments and replies, but there was little that could be called truth."

And yet. And yet. I believe Exile on Kalamazoo Street is filled with truths large and small. That, and Gray's dialogue, descriptions, and the opinions he attributes to Bryce make the book delightful. Unlike the typical alcoholic memoir ("How I overcome terrific odds to overcome my drinking), this novel is a fascinating fictional account of one man's experience of internal exile. I was willing to believe every word of it.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Here's an intriguing puzzle set in Victorian London

Because I am creating fiction myself, I tend to read novels two ways simultaneously. I read for the story, and I read to see how the author does it. Because I am currently writing a mystery, I was interested in Anne Perry's Blood on the Water, my first exposure to her work.

Blood on the Water is Perry's nineteenth Victorian-era novel to feature William Monk, commander of the Thames River Police. (She has another 27-novel Victorian mystery series featuring a married couple plus five WWI novels and 12 Christmas novels; she's a prolific lady.) Readers of the series have followed Monk, his wife Hester (formerly a nurse during the Crimean War), and Scuff, an orphaned mudlark they took in. While it is not necessary to have read the first eighteen novels in the series to enjoy Blood on the Water, I believe the experience would be richer and more enjoyable.

The novel starts with a bang, literally. On page 2, Monk and one of his officers are on the Thames at twilight watching a pleasure boat filled with party-goers returning from an excursion when "there was a shattering roar and a great gout of flame leaped from the bow. Debris shot high into the air and the column of light seared Monk's eyes. Instinctively he ducked as the shock wave struck, and pieces of wood and metal pelted into the water around him and Orme with deafening splashes...."

So there's your mystery. Who would blow up a pleasure boat killing almost 200 innocent passengers? Why would someone do such a thing? And while this is a case for the River Police, higher authorities immediately give it to the Metropolitan London police who, in fairly short order (the British press is in full cry, demanding results) identify the perpetrator, try him (we see the trial), and condemn him to death. But we're only halfway through the book. I'm not going to say more about the story because I don't want to spoil it for potential readers. I will say that it held my interest to the last page as Monk and friends worked to uphold British justice.

Which is a theme throughout the book: The idea that justice is possible, that the system is not corrupt, that British barristers and solicitors hold themselves to an ideal of equity—because if they don't and the people do not trust the law and its administrators, civilization is not possible.

Perry tells her story from the limited third person point of view, so we are with Monk on the water rescuing survivors of the blast, with Hester doing her own investigations into the event, and with Oliver Rathbone, a disbarred lawyer and apparently a significant character in earlier books. (One of the series writer's problems: How much do you have to repeat for new readers; how much should you refer back to earlier cases? Enough, I guess, to remind faithful readers of the earlier books and to help new readers understand context, not enough to bore faithful or new readers.)

As someone who knows nothing about English courts except what he's seen on television, Perry's descriptions of the—you will excuse the expression—thrust and parry between prosecution and defense barristers seemed convincing. She is also particularly good a using characters' reactions to other people and to events to convey mood and feeling. Here for example is Hester looking at the jurors:

"From her place in the gallery, Hester could see that many of them had now lost all certainty as to who was lying, mistaken, or driven by motives one could only guess at. Looking at them, studying their faces, she could see that this was not a situation that sat well with them. There were unanswered questions regarding the first trial. How could so many mistakes have been made, and then compounded? It was anxiety she saw, and rising fear. They glanced at one another and then away again hastily. They moved minutely as if unable to find a comfortable position...."

If you would like to spend some time watching Monk and his friends work out an intriguing puzzle, try Blood on the Water.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Worried about the culture? So is Clarence Page

Clarence Page has been a columnist for The Chicago Tribune since 1984. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1989. Cultural Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change, Selected Columns 1984-2014 is just what the title says it is: a collection of Page's newspaper columns organized by topic and by date within a topic.

Page is black and has been accused of being a conservative by liberals and of being a liberal by conservatives. Based on what I read in these columns, however, I don't think either label will stick. Rather, Page as a good journalist uses facts to make observations and to draw conclusions. One might argue with his conclusions (I didn't), but the 172 columns here are thoroughly grounded in reality. Page is not a mouthpiece for one ideology or another.

In describing his approach, Page says, "I try to set my moral compass to what's best for America's families, not what's best for a particular political party or interest group. My perspective hasn't changed much, but the world has. I've always portrayed myself as a good Midwestern, middle-of-the-road voice for the sensible center. I am amused when people paint me as a hard-core liberal or hard-core conservative, based on the same column!" I suspect he is less amused when whites call him a racist for criticizing a "white" ideas and blacks call him an Uncle Tom for criticizing a black figure.

The scope of the chapters is exceptionally wide: Breaking News; Gaffes, Goofs and Gotchas (reducing political discourse to jumping on one careless statement); Weaponized Umbrage; Bill Cosby's Culture War; Political Language Arts; Diversity Anxiety; Profiling: The Acceptable Prejudice; Giants Worth Remembering (among them Justice Marshall, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Coretta Scott King, and more); Crime and Cures; Prison Pipelines, Reversing the Flow; Obama World vs. Palin Nation; Tea Party Cultural Wars; How the Party of Lincoln Lost People of Color; Black Conservatives Offer Remedies, Too; Big Ideas: A Pursuit of Whatever Works; Marriage Slips Out of Style; Wooing Women's Votes.

Page says, "I write about racial issues more often than most white columnists do"—which is one reason why this book is so valuable to this white, middle-class reviewer. "But when I write about climate change, mortgage defaults, student loans, the obesity epidemic, the future of public education, are those racial issue? Maybe not on the surface, but my experience informs my awareness of how differently those issues play out in white communities compared to communities of color."

For example, Page writes about a 1996 speech Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan gave to a gathering of black journalists where he said, "White folks did not hire you to really represent what black people are really thinking, and you don't really tell them what you think because you are too afraid. A scared-to-death Negro is a slave, you slave writers, slave media people." Page says not everyone was impressed. Many were annoyed that Farrakhan would "stereotype black journalists as broadly, ignorantly and destructively as any white editor ever has. Nowhere in the Farrakhan journalism lecture was there a word said about the possibility that one could maybe sometimes disagree with Louis Farrakhan and still be black."

Because the columns stretch from 1984 to 2014, many by necessity reflect history in the making and are valuable to remind readers of old battles, some won, some continuing still. My only quibble with the book is the lack of follow-up. Occasionally I'd like to know what finally happened. How did the situation turn out?

Nevertheless, Cultural Worrier is a stimulating and interesting collection by a careful and thoughtful commentator on American life, black and white.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why write at all? Kelly Luce's answer

Kelly Luce's first book is a collection of short stories: Three Scenarios in which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. I bought it because I have a consuming interest in Japan and things Japanese and because the book won the Indifab Editor's Choice Prize for Fiction, i.e., the best independently published book of fiction in 2013. (The publisher is Austin (Texas)-based A Strange Object; Three Scenarios is its first book.)

Kelly Luce
While not all the ten stories are equally engaging (what story collection has all winners?) they are all interesting in their own way. Most of the stories are told by or featuring Japanese characters who act and sound Japanese—not, I think, an easy thing to pull of. There is a tendency when Westerners write from the inside of a foreign sensibility (and the Japanese sensibility is very foreign) to impose Western assumptions, expectations, attitudes on the characters or to write as if they are incomprehensible exotics. Luce does neither. Her characters for the most part are recognizably human in a recognizable world.

To give you a sense of Luce's scope: Mrs. Yamada sees kanji characters burned into her toast and realizes they can tell how a person is going to die, which is not any more strange that seeing Christ's face on a piece of toast. Middle-aged Masahiro and his younger wife go to a seaside in for their honeymoon and begin to secrets about themselves and each other. A young woman goes to a temple festival while mourning her lover. A retired professor invites a former student to be tested by his "amorometer," which measures one's capacity to love.

To give you a sense of Luce's writing, here's the opening paragraph of "Ash": "The year we lived in Japan, the volcano at the edge of town hiccupped, covering everything in six inches of of heavy golden dust. The sky turned yellow, with clouds so low they were like ceilings. No one could remember anything like it." Although Luce is working on an MFA, her writing does not suffer from what I would call the MFA disease: overly sparkly writing, the kind of writing that calls attention to itself by its garish—if apt—metaphors and language.

Luce has a "More to read" section on her blog in which she has included several interviews about herself, her writing, and Three Scenarios. I was so impressed by the stories that I wrote her with my own questions, which she answered:

How did you happen to go to Japan? 
I went in 2002, as a teacher in the JET Program, which places assistant English teachers in public school classrooms alongside a Japanese teacher of English. I didn't know much about Japan, but I wanted to go somewhere different and far away--to get a sense of the world's bigness. 

What did you do during the three years you were there?
I worked as a JET teacher in Kawasaki for about ten months, then spent a week in jail, then moved to Tokushima City (Shikoku) for two more years, where I ran an English immersion program for children ages 0-10. In Tokushima, I joined a professional Awa Odori dance troupe, learned to surf badly, hitchhiked, developed a love for konyaku jelly and Chu-hi, and sang hours upon hours of karaoke (sometimes alone.) Tokushima's also where I met my husband. 

What stands out about your experience in Japan? Can you tell if that had any effect on you as a writer and if so, what?
My time in Japan was formative. The experience of living abroad, in a country where I was (at first) functionally illiterate, dumb and deaf, taught me to observe. Making my way through stressful and uncomfortable situation--culturally, linguistically, logistically--on my own taught me confidence in my abilities to learn and grow, which gave me the tenacity to keep writing even if I failed. Japanese art, music, philosophy, and the notions of subtlety, the beauty of the ephemeral (mono no aware), and wabi-sabi sunk deeply in as if they belonged there.

Why did you go for an MFA? What do you think was the major benefit of the MFA experience/expense?
I almost didn't. I went to my first MFA program right after I returned from Japan, in 2005, simply because I didn't know what else to do with my life. I dropped out after a semester because between teaching, classwork, and the part-time job I took to supplement my stipend, I wasn't writing. What I really wanted was to live someplace beautiful, and write as much as I could until I either got better, or got sick of writing. I moved to northern CA and got a part-time nanny job and lived in a cabin in the woods for about seven years. While there I joined a writing group, read a lot, and went to writing conferences. It was a piecemeal self-education. I don't have teaching aspirations, so I figured there was no point in getting an MFA, especially if it would be costly. There was one program, though, that I occasionally applied for because of the generosity of its support. After three attempts and ten years, I got in.

I am incredibly lucky to be at the Michener Center for Writers, which not only gives its students three years to write, but also pays them to do so without requiring them to teach. It's impossible to exaggerate the benefit of this. On top of that, there's the friends I've made, and the opportunity to study with Elizabeth McCracken and Michael Adams and Rachel Kushner, and being involved with the very active wider Austin literary community. 

What is the first thing (or among the first things) you ask another writer?
Who's a woman writer you've discovered recently whose work you admire? 

Do you have a regular writing schedule? If so, what is it?
So much of writing is thinking, incubating. In that sense, I suppose I do write every day. I observe, mull, take notes. It sounds trite, but it's a way of life. So, no, I don't have a set schedule, and I don't write fresh words every day, unless you count tweets and emails.

Do you keep a journal?
I keep notes that I add to daily--scraps of conversation, funny sights, intriguing news stories--and I keep a journal when I travel. I also write a lot of emails, all of which I save, and which serve as something of a record of my thoughts and feelings. I haven't written a daily journal strictly for myself in a long time.  

What book(s) have you read recently that you think others should try?
So many great books have come out recently! Thunderstruck, by Elizabeth McCracken, is an exquisite story collection, and just nominated for the National Book Award. Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is strange and unique and beautiful. Nina McConigley's Cowboys and East Indians is a wonderful story collection that just won the PEN Open award. And I've read two of Rose Tremain's novels recently--The Road Home, and Sacred Country, both of which were stunning.

Why do you think you do it—write at all?
It's the only way for me to know what I think. 

I recommend Three Scenarios to anyone who is interested in reading a new, original voice.

Friday, September 19, 2014

An extraordinary novel by Alistair MacLeod

Recently I wrote about Alistair MacLeod's collected short stories, The Island. The collection was so good, I was reluctant to begin his novel, No Great Mischief. For one thing, he reportedly worked on it for years and I was afraid he might have worked it to death. For another thing, it is billed as a family saga and I am not much interested in family sagas. (My failure, but there it is.) Finally, what could MacLeod say about life on Cape Breton that he had not already said—and said with incredible power and grace—in the stories?

A lot.

No Great Mischief is an extraordinary novel. It is narrated by Alexander MacDonald, a middle-aged Canadian orthodontist who grew up on Cape Breton. It begins with Alexander's visit to his much older, alcoholic brother Calum in a Toronto flop house. It ends with Alexander and Calum returning to Cape Breton. In between we meet the extended family; Alexander has a twin sister, three older brothers, grandparents, cousins, and friends. We hear the family stories, how the first Alexander MacDonald left Scotland, his first wife dead, his new wife dying on the voyage, arriving in the New World with his twelve children, one of whom had given birth along the way. We hear the family stories and we watch Alexander's parents and oldest brother die one March evening as they cross the ice to their home:

"Everyone could see their three dark forms and the smaller one of the dog outlined upon the whiteness over which they traveled. By the time they were halfway across, it was dusk and out there on the ice they lit their lanterns, and that too was seen from the shore. And then they continued on their way. Then the lanterns seemed to waver and almost to dance wildly, and one described an arc in what was now the darkness and then was still. Grandpa watched for almost a minute to be sure of what he was seeing and then he shouted to my grandmother, 'There is something wrong out on the ice. There is only one light and it is not moving.'"

Alice Munro says, "You will have scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever," and I can only agree. The Cape Breton winters, working in a uranium mine, migrant workers picking seasonal produce, the primitive existence of Alexander's older brothers who sleep with loaded rifles under their best and shoot at deer if the moon is right:

"And if the shot were true, they would race down the stairs, fastening their trousers as they ran, and gather their long-bladed knives from the waiting kitchen table. Out in the field, lit by the 'lamp of the poor,' they would cut the throat of the still-thrashing deer so that the blood would run free and not taint or ruin the valuable meat. They would work quickly and efficiently, disembowelling and skinning and cutting the carcass into quarters, their knives flashing in and out of the body's cavities, severing the grey ropes of the intestines and separating the still-shuddering redness of the heart. Later they would pack the meat within buckets and lower it into the well as a means of basic refrigeration...."

As The New York Times reported, No Great Mischief is a multigenerational story that intertwines the fates of Cape Breton's fishermen and miners with those of their Scottish forebears. It reflects MacLeod's abiding concern: the tensions that pervade a community caught between the pull of tradition and the pressure of assimilation. The narrator has forsaken his island roots for a life of bourgeois discontent and the novel is enriched by Gaelic speech, old Scottish songs, and evocations of the land and the sea. Unbelievably moving.